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Picking the Right Preschool


Maggie-Reading-300x199On Friday, March 13, 2015, we hosted a live Facebook forum with three experts at Montessori Children’s House of Durham about finding the right preschool fit for your family. Below is a full transcript of the conversation:

Chapel Hill Magazine: Good morning! Welcome to the Chapel Hill Magazine, Durham Magazine and the Montessori Children’s House of Durham “How to Find the Right Preschool Fit for Your Family” Facebook forum! Today we’ll be talking with Lisa Tate (Early Childhood and Kindergarten Teacher), Lyn Dickinson (Office Manager and MCHD Parent) and Cynthia Hughey (Assistant Head of School) about topics like assessing the quality of a school and what to look for in a preschool.

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: Good Morning! We are excited to join you.

Chapel Hill Magazine: Our motherhood blogger Hannah Earnhardt just gave birth but already has preschool in the back of her mind. She asks “What should you specifically look for when researching preschools that indicate the preschool is highly rated and meets all required standards?”

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: Great question! There are a lot of things to look for. Here are some questions:

  • Does the school have a clearly articulated philosophy and methodology? Is the school accredited by a national body? What are the expectations for teacher certification and education? Does the school encourage or allow observations in the classrooms by prospective parents?
  • Ask about staff turnover – this may tell you something about the school’s culture and leadership.
  • Take user-based ratings with a grain of salt. Websites that rank schools based on ratings supplied by the general public can be manipulated negatively or positively. Reviews can be artificially composed by school members or even by competitors.

Chapel Hill Magazine: Hannah is also wondering, “When it comes to finding the right preschool, what are the best resources available to families in the Chapel Hill – Durham area to utilize as a starting point?”

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: Beginning the search can be overwhelming! Start with your friends, neighbors, and others in your circles. Local magazines, (like Chapel Hill Magazine!) also offer school guides annually that can be a great resource. Preschool fairs, sponsored by local mothers’ groups, are also held periodically in the region.

Ginny Robinson: What kinds of things should I look for when touring or observing at a school? What are considered major red flags?

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: Look for playgrounds that are developmentally appropriate, including equipment that contributes to gross motor growth. In the classroom, look closely at the materials available. Are they clean, complete, and purposeful? Are they learning tools or just toys? How would you describe the atmosphere of the classroom? Is it calm or chaotic? Does it encourage social interaction for cooperative learning, peer teaching, and emotional development? What do you notice about the teacher/child interactions? Is it mutually respectful? Is it individualized? Do the adults spend most of their time “entertaining” the children, or are the children engaged in their own authentic experiences? Are teachers actively interacting with the children?

Beth Deacon: What makes a Montessori School different?

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: That is a really great question. We have a lot to say about that. We will answer in four parts:

  • The “whole child” approach. The goal of a Montessori education is to help each child reach their full potential in all areas of life. The holistic curriculum, under the direction of a specially prepared teacher, allows the child to experience the joy of learning, time to enjoy the process and ensure the development of self esteem, and provides the experiences from which children create their knowledge.
  • The “prepared environment.” In order for self-directed learning to take place, the whole learning environment – room, materials, and social climate – must be supportive of the learner.
  • The Montessori materials. Dr. Montessori’s observations of the kinds of things that children enjoy and go back to repeatedly led her to design a number of multisensory, sequential and self-correcting materials that facilitate the learning of skills and lead to learning of abstract ideas.
  • The Teacher. The Montessori teacher functions as a designer of the environment, resource person, role model, demonstrator, record-keeper, and meticulous observer of each child’s behavior and growth. Extensive training after college, including a year’s student teaching, is required for a full AMS credential.

Hannah Earnhardt: How soon should you start researching preschools, pay your registration fees and place your child on the waiting list? 

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: This may depend on what age your child will begin school. Typically you want to allow yourself about a year before school starts to research, visit, apply, and register. Many area private schools and preschools begin their admissions process in the fall and make offers (according to availability) in the spring for the following school year. Some schools may also have rolling admissions, allowing for later applications.

Chapel Hill Magazine: Say a reader has a child that is high energy (or shy or advanced for his or her age, etc.), what kind of environment would be most suitable?

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: 

  • Let’s start with the high-energy example. It is essential for a high-energy child to move frequently indoors and outdoors as part of their daily experience. You would want to look for a school that has high quality, challenging playgrounds, along with indoor activities that allow the child to move purposefully throughout the room. Be sure the school does not expect the children to sit quietly for an extended period of time.
  • For a shy child, a multi-aged classroom is a great setting because it allows for mentoring, peer-to-peer teaching, and the development of an individual child’s leadership skills where her own timeline for that developement is respected. Look for an environment where the child is physically and emotionally safe to explore.
  • Even at the preschool level, children have their own individual strengths and abilities. A child may be reading at 4, but needs more social development, for example. For this reason, we would again recommend a multi-age classroom setting. Look for a classroom where children can work at their own pace and level and where students are given lessons according to their abilities, not their age, based on the teacher’s observation of the children.

Ginny Robinson: How does your school welcome and foster parental involvement? 

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: The school-family partnership is established from the very beginning. We invite parents to tour campus and observe a classroom as part of the application process. Once enrolled, parents volunteer in a variety of ways, based on their availability and talents. These may include board service, class parents, event coordinators, assisting with gardening activities or bringing snacks for a special breakfast. We also offer several community events for families, from local hikes to Parent Education Nights. We host Parent-Teacher conferences twice a year, and each class (including After School groups) emails regular communication with updates, photos, and class information.

Colin Cannell: How would you recommend choosing a half-day vs a full-day program for ages 2, 3, 4, etc.?

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: Think about what is important to your family that fits your lifestyle and needs. At our school, we offer a morning Montessori program and a Montessori-inspired After School program. Ask the school to which you apply what the whole day experience is like and determine if that is the best for your child. After doing some research, you can begin to articulate which educational philosophy and methodology resonates with your family.

Chapel Hill Magazine: Here’s another one from Hannah: What steps should parents take to determine what their priorities should be when selecting a preschool? In other words, what factors should I consider in selecting a preschool?

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: Make a list of factors that will play a role and begin to prioritize. Consider cost, location, culture, diversity, language, arts, curriculum, outside play, and others. For instance, you may be willing to drive further for a school that matches your top academic and social priorities, or you may be willing to pay more for a school that requires less commuting time and provides after school care.

Chapel Hill Magazine: Final question: Any last words of wisdom for parents during their search for a preschool that fits their family?

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: 

  • Some parents wonder what required standards they should look for when researching preschools. We like to remind parents that this depends on if you are looking for a daycare or a school. Daycares are required to meet standards set by the state of NC. Schools accredited by national organizations are exempt from state daycare regulations. The accreditation procress is quite rigorous, usually surpassing state educational expectations.
  • Also, be aware of a school’s conflict resolution process. For instance, peace, grace and courtesy are hallmarks of the Montessori philosophy and are the foundation of our conflict resolution process. We aspire to implement these traits in our relationships with parents, staff members, and other stakeholders and actively teach these in the classroom.

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: Thank you Chapel Magazine for this opportunity! We have enjoyed this time together and encourage anyone with more questions to contact us anytime.

Chapel Hill Magazine: We’ve learned so much. A huge thank you to Lisa, Cynthia and Lyn of Montessori Children’s House of Durham for sharing their expertise!

For more information about Montessori Children’s House of Durham, call 919-489-9045 or visit them online at mchdurham.org